Tajha Chappellet-Lanier here, remembering my most recent telehealth experience. It was, in quite a meta turn of events, a conversation with my therapist about writing and creating. We talked about the cover story I wrote for this week’s print edition of the Weekly: A deep dive into why and how the pandemic has accelerated the use of virtual doctors’ visits.
I started my reporting for the story with some questions. Why did it take a global pandemic to drive telehealth adoption? And what next? As I spoke with healthcare providers and policy experts I learned about some of the unexpected things that restricted telehealth before (insurance policy) as well as expected things that, in many cases, still do (broadband access). All that is covered at length in the story.
Today, I want to highlight a little tidbit I learned that’s stuck with me. Often, when it comes to technology that is used to facilitate human interaction, the gold standard is something that is almost as good as in-person, but not quite. We acknowledge and accept that we’re going to be missing something when we, for example, have a Zoom cocktail party with far-flung friends or family. But it’s convenient, cheaper than traveling and better than an email!
It’s far more rare that a digital experience actually provides more information than the in-person equivalent. But Alicia Ventura, a family medicine physician at the Alisal Health Clinic, told me that, in some cases, telehealth can fall into this category.
It has to do with what doctors call “social determinants of health”—the environmental conditions of where a person lives or works and the impact that has on health outcomes. Conducting a video visit with a patient in their home, Ventura told me, allows her to actually see many important environmental factors, like how crowded the house is or how clean, the kind of information she wouldn’t have access to if the patient came into the clinic.
Seeing into people’s lives is valuable—if Ventura notices that an older patient lives in a multigenerational family, for example, she might try to get a tech-savvy teen involved in the care of their grandparent. “It is nice to be able to just see people’s families, see their home lives, see their pets,” she says. “I get a lot out of video visits.”
Because Ventura’s clinic serves a lot of farmworkers and Medi-Cal patients, she’s now in an unsure position—it’s still unclear what state telehealth policy will look like once the pandemic public health emergency ends. But Ventura’s experiences provide yet another reason to support the expansion of telehealth and the infrastructure investments that go along with it. Health is complicated and multifaceted. If technology can help us make sense of that, what’s not to like?